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New Approach to Colombia Urged
Published on Monday, May 28, 2001 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
New Approach to Colombia Urged
Canada Should Distance Itself From U.S. Militaristic Strategy, Conference Told
by Paul Knox
 
If only they sentenced wayward comedians to antistereotype school. Then you might have seen David Letterman at Toronto's York University last week.

The late-night television host apologized recently after joking that a Colombian beauty queen's talent act involved swallowing 50 balloons full of heroin. He wasn't the first North American to imply that Colombia begins and ends with drug trafficking, and he is unlikely to be the last.


To rebuild the country, we don't need more weapons.

Lilia Solano
professor at the Javeriana University in Bogota.
But the message from a two-day conference on violence and peace-building in Colombia, sponsored by two York research centres, was that the violence ravaging Colombia goes far beyond drugs, and that drug-centered efforts to stop it will have little effect.

Professors, social activists and exiled Colombians living in Canada warned that U.S. military aid and forced eradication of drug crops are hurting the average Colombian. Canada, they said, should put more distance between its Colombia policy and that of Washington.

"There are alternatives, and Canada needs to speak out about increased military intervention in the region," said Bill Fairbairn, South American program co-ordinator with the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America.

Two million of Colombia's 40 million people have been uprooted from their homes in the past 10 years as fighting intensifies among government troops, leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary forces, rights groups say.

Yesterday, two small bombs exploded in the southern city of Cali, the latest in a string of attacks feeding fears that the largely rural conflict could be spreading to the cities. Last Friday, two explosions killed four people and injured 21 in the capital, Bogota.

The guerrillas, fighting since the 1960s, support themselves by kidnapping the rich for ransom and by taxing drug traffic in areas they control. Paramilitary groups profit in the same ways, and have carried out large-scale massacres of civilians.

Helped by $1.3-billion (U.S.) in aid from Washington over two years, the government of President Andres Pastrana has stepped up the spraying of herbicide on plantations of coca, the raw material for cocaine.

Meanwhile, two years of peace talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the strongest guerrilla force, have produced almost nothing of substance.

Mr. Pastrana has just one year left in his four-year term.

Delegates at the York conference said the chances of him reaching a deal with the FARC or the National Liberation Army are extremely low.

"This peace process has no possibility of producing results; none," said Martin Movilla, a Colombian television journalist who covered political violence but fled to Canada last year after receiving death threats.

Assassinations and bomb attacks related to the illegal drug trade won global notoriety in the late 1980s, but the conflict over land and resources is nothing new. Before coca and the opium poppy, violence was associated with commodity booms involving coffee, cattle and oil.

Control over timber and mineral resources is also fueling conflict, said history professor Catherine Legrand of McGill University in Montreal.

Paramilitary groups terrorize settlers into vacating land coveted by the rich, several speakers said at the conference.

"The struggle for land has become more and more acute," said Lilia Solano, a professor at the Javeriana University in Bogota.

"The traffickers bought large quantities of land, and there is a greater concentration than ever."

Prof. Solano said that although Mr. Pastrana promised a broad social-development scheme in his 1998 election campaign, his Plan Colombia -- which includes the U.S. Military aid -- focuses mainly on fighting the drug trade.

"To rebuild the country, we don't need more weapons," she said.

Most experts say it will be next to impossible to shut down the illegal drug trade while demand remains strong in North America and Europe.

Ron Davidson, director of South America relations at Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, rejected calls to take a clear stand against forced eradication and the militarization of antidrug efforts.

"We would like to see drug production reduced, and we don't have a good alternative to propose" as an alternative to herbicide-spraying, he said, cautioning that Canada has not taken a position for or against Plan Colombia.

Ottawa is one of several governments offering to act as facilitators in the peace dialogue.

Mr. Davidson said Canadian diplomats actively support Colombian peace groups and let authorities know they are concerned about rights violations.

Copyright © 2001 Globe Interactive

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